Teachers in Seattle and across Washington may soon follow in the footsteps of educators in Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia in striking for better pay. But why would teachers have to strike for better pay in a state run by Democrats, and after our legislature supposedly fully funded our public schools?
Parents have asked these questions since we heard strikes were imminent, as many districts already authorized strikes for lack of competitive salaries. The answer, sadly, is that Washington’s legislature continues to shirk its responsibility to properly fund our public schools. It did give an extra $1 billion in the state budget to pay higher salaries to address the teacher shortage. But wealthy interests, Republicans, and some elected Democrats are trying to convince districts not to give teachers the money they deserve.
Here’s the story. In 2012, the Supreme Court ordered the state legislature in the McCleary case to fully and amply fund our public schools, as the state constitution requires. The legislature kicked the can for years and then, kicking and screaming, finally enacted a plan to shortchange working families, people trying to live with ever-escalating home prices and rent in Puget Sound, and small school districts unable to compete with larger nearby districts.
Rather than provide ample and lasting funding for our schools and teachers, the legislature adopted a Republican proposal, which levied the largest property tax in state history and limited local school district levies, all in order to achieve the bare minimum court compliance. Oh, and in doing so, the legislature gave hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to big business.
In 2016, the Court required the legislature to add $1 billion more for schools this year. Contrary to the editorial in the Seattle Times, the Court noted that the state admitted that the money was required to fulfill the legislature’s own enacted goal of providing salaries high enough to retain teachers and address the teacher shortage, so the money is indeed there.
The legislature's “solution” created two separate and huge cuts to public schools: one in the 2019-20 school year when school districts’ levy authority drops, and another in the 2023-24 school year when the state property tax lid resumes. These cuts to public school funding are set to happen even if teachers are denied the higher salaries to which they have both the right and need.
Thanks solely to the legislature’s action, districts like Seattle Public Schools face near immediate deficits of more than $40 million a year. As Tacoma’s superintendent recently explained, “Districts like Tacoma and Yakima with high-poverty urban neighborhoods lose funding in both the short term and long term.”
Washington’s Paramount Duty, an organization of more than 7,000 parents and community members that I co-founded in 2015, fought hard against this ridiculous fake solution in 2017. We argued that the state should pass a capital gains tax and close corporate tax loopholes to fund public schools, and we noted that the proposal the legislature would wind up adopting would not actually deliver the money our schools needed.
Some Seattle legislators pointed out these same problems and voted no on this awful proposal. Unfortunately, other legislators, including most Democrats and most members of the Seattle delegation in the House, voted for this education funding plan, even though it screws Seattle’s schools.
The legislature’s plan also failed to solve existing problems and inequities. In fact, it created new ones, including widening unfair differences between districts for salaries. Some districts, like Puyallup and Federal Way, were given less money for salaries than districts next door, leaving them at a disadvantage against richer districts.
Teachers should not have to accept less money because of the legislature’s mistakes. I sympathize with legislators who want to be done with the education funding issue. I'd like to move on with my life, too. But legislators have the obligation to come back and fix what they broke. After all, they’re going to have to revisit the funding issue thanks to their own use of short-term funds. It’s a problem legislators created for themselves.
The blame for any strike lies squarely with legislators who threw an interception on the one-yard line.
When strikes took place in red states, teachers were supported by the public and cheered on by Democratic leaders, such as DNC Chair Tom Perez. But here in Washington, some Democrats prefer that parents not challenge the smoke and mirrors “solution” that Republicans and big business pushed and Democrats accepted.
But accepting this shoddy plan and sitting quietly on the sidelines would mean our kids would lose. Our districts won't be able to pay enough to attract and retain teachers, and Washington’s poor and working families will continue to bear the brunt of paying for public education and our state’s other crucial services.
For example, Chris Reykdal, who was elected as State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2016 with strong support from teachers, has now come out against teachers getting the raises they’re due. He is now advising districts to limit raises to what is sustainable with the two funding cuts on the horizon. Disappointingly, he chose not to weigh in regarding these funding cuts in the McCleary case in either 2017 or 2018.
Seattle—and other school districts—need to be able to pay salaries to attract and retain teachers. Just across Seattle’s northern boundary, teachers in Shoreline received a well-deserved 20 percent pay increase! Seattle teachers also need more money to keep pace, or else we will lose good teachers to suburban districts.
Most legislators are totally silent as the teachers fight for better pay. They seem to hope that parents won’t notice that this potential strike is their fault for again failing to fund our public schools.
Seattle Public Schools should immediately give educators and other staff significant raises and invest in ethnic studies, professional development, health care for substitute teachers, family leave, and lower counselor-to-student and nurse-to-student ratios. And then SPS needs to stand with us and make it clear that the problem rests where it always has — with legislators who will quickly vote to cut taxes on rich people and big corporations, but refuse to properly fund our public schools with progressive new revenue.
The public agrees the legislature’s work is not done. In a poll conducted in June by Public Policy Polling for the Northwest Progressive Institute, 61 percent of respondents said our public schools are still underfunded, and that we need to raise revenue to fund them. 58 percent said they support a capital gains tax, which is one obvious place to start.
Earlier this month I publicly asked Governor Jay Inslee what he would do about the ongoing public education funding crisis. He told me that if more supporters of a capital gains tax were elected in November, he'd help me pass it in 2019. I intend to hold him to that promise.
It looks like he will have plenty of help keeping that promise. Supporters of increased funding for public education did very well in the August primary. If those results hold in November, Democrats will have much larger majorities in the legislature, and legislators will have no excuse to once again fail to deliver for our children.
In states like Arizona, West Virginia, and Oklahoma, their courts were not involved in helping win more funds for schools and teachers. Democrats there and across America pledged solidarity with those teachers. Our Democratic-run legislature needs to step up and deliver for our teachers. It's time we took inspiration from these other states' movements and mobilize ourselves to force the legislature to fix what they broke and, finally, fully fund our public schools.
Summer Stinson is a co-founder and the President of Washington’s Paramount Duty a grassroots group of parents and allies advocating for the state to amply fund public schools.